It’s often said that fat loss is a simple matter of eating less and running more. But anyone who has tried that knows it’s hard to balance fuelling for a run with trying to burn off calories you’ve already consumed. That’s why runners from all parts of the pack struggle to juggle their training and fat loss goals.
If, despite your best intentions, you haven’t lost fat with running (or worse, you’ve actually gained fat), the first step is to look at what (and how much) you are eating – and why. Have your portions grown too large? Have you slipped into the habit of taking second helpings? Are you still indulging in post-long-run ice cream even when you’re not (be honest) running very far?
Keep a food diary or use an app to track your calorie intake for a week. The answer to how many calories you need simply to maintain your body composition is rather complex, and your age, gender, and fitness level have to be factored in, but your food log will help you get a handle on how many calories you typically consume. After that, the maths for fat loss is pretty straightforward. To lose one pound of body fat per week, you need to create a calorie deficit of roughly 3,500 calories in that time. So if you want to lose fat, you would subtract 500 calories per day from the total number of calories you typically consume. If you want to take your fat loss slower, subtract 250 calories per day.
But since you’re a runner, you also have to think of food as fuel you need to sustain an even pace, finish feeling strong and bounce back quickly from workouts – all while trying to shrink your waistline. That’s why it’s so important you get the right balance of high-quality carbs, heart-healthy fats and muscle-regenerating protein. Smart food choices can help you drop those last pounds – for good.
Without carbs in your diet, you have no fuel or glycogen stores in your muscles. And without any fuel in the tank, it’s going to be difficult to get through a run, not to mention maximise your calorie burn. Carbs are simply the easiest form of calories for your body to convert to energy.
That said, many runners fail to reach their fat loss goals because they consume more carbs than their level of running demands. While there’s nothing wrong with a plate of pasta the night before a long run (note, ‘long’) or a bagel after a hard workout (note, ‘hard’), when you’re trying to lose fat, there’s no need for these foods every day, even if you run every day. They contain too many calories without providing enough essential nutrients.
Because when it comes to carbs, quality counts. Healthy carbs – fruits, vegetables and wholegrains – contain fibre, antioxidants and essential vitamins that provide the fuel you need to run well and take your fitness to the next level, plus vital minerals that protect you from chronic disease.
As a runner, you should get 55-65 per cent of your daily calories from quality carbs. To get a sense of what we mean by quality, compare a bagel and a banana. A mini bagel has 180 calories, 36 grams of carbs, six grams of sugar and seven grams of protein. A banana has 105 calories, with 27 grams of carbs, 14 grams of sugar and 1.3 grams of protein, plus vital nutrients such as vitamin B6 (which helps build cells), magnesium (assists in muscle contractions) and potassium (helps prevent cramps). All that for 75 fewer calories.
Top ways to get 25g of quality carbs
- Grains (2 slices wholewheat bread or 80g porridge)
- Dairy products (475ml skimmed milk or one 130g fruit-flavoured yoghurt)
- Beans and starchy vegetables (30g black beans or 150g peas or 1 medium potato)
- Sports drinks, bars, and gels (1 energy bar or 475ml sports drink or 1 carb gel)
- Mixed dishes (175ml tomato soup or 1 slice thin-crust pizza or 1 small vegetarian burrito)
- Fruits (1 medium apple or 400g fresh strawberries)
Many runners trying to lose fat think they must give up oils, nuts and avocados. Wrong. Dietary fat helps the body absorb fat-soluble nutrients, such as vitamins D and K, vital for bone health, and vitamin E, which helps repair the body. Omega-3 fatty acids – found in salmon and walnuts – fight inflammation. Polyunsaturated fats – from avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil – have anti-inflammatory properties, helping to repair the muscle tears and bone breakdown caused by hard sessions.
10 top fat sources for runners
- Walnuts: 18.5g fat protein from a 28g serving (14 halves). Rare plant source of omega-3s
- Peanut butter: 16g for 2 tbsp. Great source of unsaturated fats,
fibre and protein
- Rapeseed oil: 14g for 1 tbsp High in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which reduces inflammation
- Olive oil: 14g for 1 tbsp. Linked to reduced heart disease risk and good blood pressure
- Almonds: 14g protein from a 28g serving (23 nuts). An excellent source of monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, which aids circulation
- Flaxseed oil: 13.6g for 1 tbsp. Flaxseeds must be ground to release nutrients. The oil contains more heart-healthy fats
- Pistachios: 13g protein from a 28g serving (49 nuts). Contain vitamin E, and lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health
- Salmon: 6g protein from an 85g serving (cooked). Contains omega-3 fatty acids
- Avocado: 5g for 1/5 medium avocado. Source of monounsaturated fats, which lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol levels of LDL
- Wheatgerm: 1.5g for 2 tbsp. Contains B vitamins and immunity-boosting zinc
Yes, protein is important for fat loss. And as a runner, you need more than the amount recommended for sedentary people. That’s because as you log miles you’ll need to replace the protein you break down during intense and long workouts, to repair and build lean muscle tissue.
Scientists have long known that protein builds lean muscle mass and provides a feeling of fullness that can aid fat loss. In a study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, people who ate twice the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for protein while cutting calories and exercising lost more fat and kept more lean muscle than those who stuck with the RDA. Another study showed that eating a high-protein breakfast (with 35 grams of protein) curbed appetites later in the day and reduced cravings for high-fat, high-sugar snacks in the evening; it also helped stabilise levels of blood sugar and insulin, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes.
In the 30 minutes following a hard speed session or long run, the body is particularly receptive to protein and carbs to repair muscle tissue and restock glycogen stores. That’s why experts recommend that runners have a snack with a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein in the 30-60 minutes following a hard workout such as a long run or a speed session.
Most runners should aim for 0.55-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day to recover from workouts and to build fitness. If you’re logging more miles, are over 40, or are incorporating lots of strength training into your routine, you probably need the higher range.
12 lean protein sources
- Chicken breast: 25g protein from an 85g serving. Contains selenium to protect muscles from free-radical damage
- Lean beef: 24g protein from an 85g serving. Contains immunity-boosting iron and zinc
- Pork: 22g protein from an 85g serving. Provides iron, thiamin, riboflavin, and B vitamins
- Turkey breast: 22g protein from an 85g serving. 50 per cent of your niacin and B12 RDAs
- Salmon: 22g protein from an 85g serving. Good fats plus vitamin B12
- Tofu: 20g protein from a 125g serving. Protein plus calcium
- Lentils: 18g protein from a 200g serving. High in iron and fibre
- Greek yoghurt: 12-17g protein from a 150g serving. Packs protein, calcium and vitamin D
- Black beans: 15g protein from a 60g serving. Contain circulation-boosting folate
- Chickpeas: 12-15g protein from a 150g serving. Provide manganese, which is important for bone health
- Kidney beans: 13g protein from a 55g serving. Rich in iron and fibre
- Egg: 6g from 1 large egg. High in choline, for brain health
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